New Report Slams Justice Department Transparency, Goes Easy on Obama

Shh! Top secret.<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/38764499@N00/2721122278/">(cup)cake_eater</a>/Flickr

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.

Each year, the National Security Archive at George Washington University announces its Rosemary Award, given to the government agency that is deemed the most abysmal at transparency and “open government performance”—think of it as the RAZZIE Awards, but for FOIA and NatSec nerds.

And the watchdog group’s 2011 Rosemary goes to (drum roll, please…) the Department of Justice, narrowly beating out the Department of Homeland Security, two senior CIA officials, CENTCOM, and the US Agency for International Development.

The Archive’s report lists the following indictments:

  • persisting recycled legal arguments for greater secrecy throughout Justice’s litigation posture, including specious arguments before the Supreme Court in 2011 in direct contradiction to President Obama’s “presumption of openness”;
  • retrograde proposed regulations that would allow the government to lie in court about the existence of records sought by FOIA requesters, and also prevent elementary and secondary school students – as well as bloggers and new media – from getting fee waivers, while narrowing multiple other FOIA provisions;
  • a mixed overall record on freedom of information with some positive signs (overall releases slightly up, roundtable meetings with requesters, the [FOIA website] collating government-wide statistics) outweighed by backsliding in the key indicator of the most discretionary FOIA exemption, (b)(5) for “deliberative process,” cited by Justice to withhold information a whopping 1,500 times in 2011 (up from 1,231 in 2010).

In response to the award, a DOJ spokesperson told Politico that “[a]nyone who knows anything about FOIA will tell you that the Department of Justice is doing more than ever to promote openness and transparency under that Act… [The Archive’s] analysis is really distant from the facts.” As for Obama, the Archive’s report goes pretty easy on POTUS, primarily laying blame for the continued disintegration of transparency on “career officials who seem in practical rebellion against President Obama’s open-government orders.”

“The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, that it should not be disclosed,” the president said on the second day in office. “That era is now over.”

But this week’s report on the Justice Department won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Obama administration’s pattern in dealing with agency secrets. Since 2009, the self-proclaimed “most transparent administration ever” has routinely echoed Bush-era policy on state secrets, and has led a clampdown on leaks and whistleblowing on an unprecedented scale. (For a monetary frame of reference, in 2010, the cost of the government’s security classification system hit well over $10 billion, a 15 percent increase from 2009, and the first time ever that US secrecy costs surpassed $10 billion.)

Simply blaming the current state of affairs on officials who are allegedly “in practical rebellion” against the president’s wishes seems like a pretty big cop-out.

h/t Tim Mak

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.